OF ALL the things that won’t cure the world’s ills, a wee dram is among the most popular. Or so the colour remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1949 Ealing comedy tells us.
As with the original, Whisky Galore (Certificate PG) is based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel. This time, the screenplay is by Peter McDougall, a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Unfortunately, this is not enough for the film to emulate its predecessor.
It is 1943, and the Todday islanders’ whisky supply expires. During a storm, the freighter SS Cabinet Minister runs aground near Todday, and begins to sink, along with its cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky.
Obstacles stand in the way of rescuing the cargo: not the swirling Hebridean seas, but adherence to the sabbath, and a pompous English Home Guard commander, Waggett (Eddie Izzard). He tells his wife that, if the whisky ends up in Davy Jones’s locker, that is an act of God; if it ends up in anyone else’s locker, that is stealing.
It does not seem to be the view of Todday’s minister, the Revd Macalister (James Cosmo), a character absent from the 1949 version. He may thunder from his pulpit (filmed in St Monan’s, Fife) on the need to obey the commandments, but he is nevertheless content to partake of the ship’s spoils.
There is great rejoicing in how whisky’s ingredients miraculously turn into liquid gold through the magic of God’s guidance. Ecumenical relations are well advanced. The RC priest has filled the minister’s hip-flask with communion wine.
Mackenzie, who became a Roman Catholic in 1914, created in his novel two culturally distinct islands: Great Todday (Protestant) and Little Todday (RC). No such conflict appears in either film version.
Macalister, irrespective of denomination, seems to represent what is best about Christianity. His forbearance, however, is not always shared by members of the Kirk. When Waggett rings George Campbell on a Sunday, his mother (Ann Louise Ross) refuses to let them talk. “Alexander Graham Bell, a God-fearing Christian and devout man that he was, even if he did go to Canada, did not invent the telephone for it to be given to man to mock the sabbath.”
It is noticeable that this new film believes it necessary to spell out to modern audiences what observance of the Lord’s Day means.
The plot largely rests on a battle of wits between Presbyterian casuistry and officious military personnel; a couple of romances are thrown in for good measure. It is this latter element that leavens the lump, giving any strait-laced islanders the necessary excuse to toast the lovers with whisky galore.
Rather in the manner of Babette’s Feast (1987), refreshments bring about spiritual changes; but, unlike that film, not very convincingly. Those with pride and prejudice are unlikely to have repented so easily.
The movie is less a comedy, more “Whimsy Galore”. It kept the best laugh until the final credit: “No alcohol was consumed in the making of this film”. Perhaps that was the problem.
“ONE for sorrow, two for joy,” the elderly Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) says in The Secret Scripture (12A). Turning to her new psychiatrist, Stephen Grene (Eric Bana), she asks: “Which one are you?” She is in an Irish mental hospital to which she was committed, diagnosed criminally insane, more than 50 years ago.
Apparently, during the Second World War, she killed her newborn baby, and, for some reason, Grene has been asked after all this time by the Archbishop to look into her case.
The writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) portrays an Ireland that is riven with patriarchy. In a film that uses flashbacks to the early 1940s, Rooney Mara plays the younger Rose.
After being bombed in Ulster, she is sent to the Republic, and stays with her aunt in Ballytivan, Co. Sligo. She catches several men’s attention, including Father Gaunt (Theo James), who becomes obsessed with her. She rebuffs him: “You’re a priest who also wants to be a man. Make up your mind.”
As a non-Catholic, she needs to tread carefully, lest she is viewed as threatening Nationalist aspirations for Irish unification. Rose’s association with Michael (Jack Reynor), also Protestant, adds to the uneasiness surrounding her.
The baby she gives birth to was Michael’s, but suspicion falls on the priest. Gaunt has her committed on the grounds of nymphomania.
All this is made known to Grene via Rose’s old Bible, which she used as a notebook. Along the margins and across the text she describes the cruel way she has been treated. Love of the absent Michael remains strong. We are shown pages of scripture: often passages of hope in Job, Exodus, and Mark, etc., where Rose has scrawled and illustrated her history.
Throughout this dreamlike captivity, Rose has striven to make sense of life in the light of Holy Writ, finding echoes in a page from Daniel headed “Interpretation of the dream”. “There’s a sadness in people,” she tells Grene, “that stops them seeing the truth”. Joy somehow prevails within her.
The Secret Scripture covers some of the same ground as The Magdalene Sisters, and Philomena (Arts, 1 November 2013), but with more understanding of the religious and social mores of that time. Making a clear distinction between sentiment and sentimentality, the film knows how to move us to tears.
One can overlook old Rose being a good eight inches taller than her younger version, but coloured contact lenses would have removed the discrepancy between Mara’s green eyes and Redgrave’s blue ones.
Equally, Sheridan does not handle the story’s coincidences well. In a faith-filled movie, providence gives way to improbability. Is it less far-fetched in Sebastian Barry’s Man Booker prize-winning novel, perhaps? I hope so.